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Times Will Tell Podcast

Podcast: After writing the great Jewy-American novel, author Elyssa Friedland’s back

This week, the ‘Last Summer at the Golden Hotel’ and ‘Floating Feldmans’ author releases her newest work and tells us all about it. NEW: Full transcript included

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

There are basically two categories for novelist Elyssa Friedland’s work: Jewy and super-Jewy.

Friedland has a new book out this week, “The Most Likely Club,” but many listeners will know her from two, very Jewy, earlier works, “Last Summer at the Golden Hotel” and “The Floating Feldmans.” Friedland has written two other novels and is looking forward to the publication of her first children’s book soon.

Today, in addition to working on her own books, Friedland teaches novel writing at her alma mater, Yale University. She’s also a Columbia Law School grad and once upon a time worked as an associate at a major law firm before turning to writing full-time.

Her new novel, “The Most Likely Club,” has some of her trademark Jewish flavor in the characters, but weaves together the stories of four women, high school best friends, who are reunited for their 25th high school reunion.

Friedland spoke with The Times of Israel for our weekly Times Will Tell podcast, a week before the publication of “The Most Likely Club.”

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Elyssa, thank you so much for joining me today. Where am I finding you?

Elyssa Friedland: You are finding me on Long Island in New York.

So we came together, of course, to speak about your newest book, “The Most Likely Club,” but also about some of your other great books that, coincidentally actually, I read four out of five of your novels without even knowing that they were written by you, aside from the last one, of course, which I asked for.

Wow, that’s very flattering. I’m very happy to hear that. You might be the only person other than my mother to do that.

Cover of ‘The Most Likely Club’ by Elyssa Friedland. (Courtesy)

You can say that I’m your number one fan, but not in a “Misery” kind of way. I just really enjoyed your work, and I just would read the synopsis of a novel, buy it, read it, and say, this sounds somewhat familiar in tone to another book that I really enjoyed and read. And then I looked up and thought, yeah, same author — again and again. It was just really kind of coincidental and strange, but fantastic.

Well, I’m very happy to hear that. I do think I have a voice that carries through from book to book. So I do try, of course, to vary the plots, create new characters, always keep it interesting for myself, not only for the reader to have something new, but for me. I’m the one who has to be with it a lot longer than the reader does while I’m writing it. And so I do try to always come up with very new ideas, but I think my voice is my voice, so I’m not surprised that there are echoes of it in all the books.

So for me personally, I kind of divide your works into extremely, very Jewy and medium Jewy. In the very Jewy category, we have, of course, “Last summer at the Golden Hotel” and “The Floating Feldmans.” In the medium Jewy category I would put your newest novel, “The Most Likely Club,” which comes out September 6, and then “Love and Miscommunication.” Now, the one novel I didn’t read, where would that fit in the Jewy or very Jewy spectrum?

I would say, “The Intermission,” the one you did not read is definitely medium- to low-Jewy. So you haven’t missed out on any super Jewy.

So let’s just very briefly speak about the plot behind “The Most Likely Club.” Give us a couple of sentences. What is this book about?

“The Most Likely Club” is about four women that were very close friends in high school, and they are reunited. Three of the four of them reunite at their 25th high school reunion and one of them is unable to make it, she says, because of work obligations, and being back together on campus where they went to school. Seeing their former classmates just filled them with all the usual angsty feelings. And they really take a moment to take stock of their lives where they are 25 years out of high school and think about, is this where they wanted to be? Is this where they thought they would end up?

After a sort of boozy night of reminiscing and remembering who they once were, they decide to try to make their high school superlative come true. Their “most likely” in the yearbook. And they embark on this plan to actualize some of their dreams from when they were teenagers. And as you can imagine, when you’re in your mid-40s, it’s difficult to make that kind of life change. And so we follow these women as they try to right the ship of their lives, but of course are met with all sorts of obstacles.

And then the fourth friend who is not able to make it to the reunion, of course she folds into the story, and we learn some big surprises about her. And it’s really just the story of what it’s like to reach middle age, look back and take stock of where you are and really take time to think about if this is where you want to be and when is it too late to make a change.

Not only do I know what you’re talking about, I live what you’re talking about. I realized suddenly when I was reading this book that my high school union will be 30 years in the spring. So, yes, I fully grasped all the different dramas and concerns of each of these women, and it really felt like they were all in me or I was all in them. And when you were writing these characters, did you feel that yourself? That you were splintering off different concerns and challenges of your life as a working mother, wife and professional and putting it into these four different women.

Definitely. I mean, when I think about it — I won’t bore your listeners with going into each character — exactly how I’m similar to them, but for sure there are some that I’m more similar to than others. I would say I’m not a doctor, obviously, I’m a writer. But the doctor character in the book is probably the one that I relate to the most in my day-to-day life, because she and her husband are both working professionals and they have three children, just like me and my husband. We have three children and I definitely still do the lion’s share of the child — I wouldn’t necessarily say, like, child raising, I think we share that. But I certainly do the lion’s share of the camp forms, the health forms, the dentist visits, the selection of camp and after-schools. I could go on and on. And I know many women who are listening to this can relate to that.

A stressed mother during lockdown. (Sam Thomas via iStock by Getty Images)

And so in her life, Priya the character is named in the book, is really similar to mine. She’s really overwhelmed. She doesn’t quite understand why it has to be this way, like why her husband, who works basically in the same job, they work at the same hospital, is sort of let off scotch free and he can go out for a run while she’s buried and, like, uploading the COVID vaccine cards, essentially.

And she just doesn’t have a free second to herself. Sometimes when she thinks about what she’d want to do with her free time, she can’t even figure it out because she hasn’t had free time in so long. And so she’s a character that I really relate to in my day-to-day life. Although it was fun making her a doctor because it did still let me escape a little bit because I don’t even know that much about the medical profession and I had to research that and it kind of let me have a little bit of distance from her.

So I didn’t pour every single detail of my life. If she had been a writer, that probably would have been a bit too much. So I have a lot in common with her. But the other women, too, there one character really fixated on her weight. And I’m definitely someone who if I had a reunion coming up, I would try some crash diet and I could see myself getting really obsessed with how I look when I’m going back to school, which is, of course, not the ideal way to be spending your time and your energy.

And then the other women as well. There’s a very powerful CEO. I’m not her, but she’s just someone I don’t know if I relate to her as much as I just think about women like that. And the double standard that is applied to women in positions of power and how unfair it is. Like the Hillary Clintons of the world who are just the more ambitious they are, the more maligned they are. So, yeah, I have bits and pieces of myself and all the women and things I see from my friends and just from the headlines that interest me.

I just found myself nodding, laughing and wanting to cry with some of the situations. And we won’t spoil it because it’s definitely worth reading. I just want to mention that while it may sit in the chicklit category, it is so deep in its message and it so hit home to me as a working mother of seven. It is no question that all of these concerns that especially the Priya character has, every woman I know in our situation of working and having children is facing this mental load challenge. 

Now, that’s turned to the “Last Summer at the Golden Hotel,” which is actually, can I say this, referred to in “The Most Likely Club.” I loved that. So tell us briefly, what is this book about?

That book is about a hotel in the Catskills, very much like the hotel in “Dirty Dancing,” if you can picture Kellermans. I know that’s a movie that basically everyone with a pulse has seen. So it’s about a hotel that was once the place to see and be seen, a thriving enterprise. But it’s set in modern times and it’s really on its last leg and needs a lot of refurbishment. Isn’t attracting guests the way it used to. It’s co-owned by two Jewish families, of which there are now three generations of each family, the Goldmans and the Winegolds. And one member of the Winegold family runs the hotel on a day-to-day basis. And he receives an offer from a casino operator who wants to buy the hotel, tear it down and put a casino up in his place, which is what happens at the Concord Resort, which is one of the greats in the area. And he calls a family meeting at the hotel and reluctantly, the three generations make their way back to campus. I guess I like a lot of back to campus because that’s also the case in “The Most Likely Club.”

Illustrative: Holocaust survivors in the lobby of the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa in the Catskills in New York, July 13, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

And so these three generations come back to the hotel and we learn what’s going on in all of their lives. They all have full lives outside of the hotel and so we get slivers of their lives and the complications and the issues they’re facing and then how those issues affect what they want to do with the hotel, if they want to sell it or if they want to try to revive it. And in some ways it’s really an intergenerational story because the grandchildren who are in their 20s have a lot of ideas about how to make the hotel hip and cool and attract millennials and attract people who are living their lives on social media. And of course, the grandparents, the founder generation, can’t really make heads or tails of some of these bizarre suggestions like let’s make our own honey and have beehives, let’s have all vegan food options, let’s have goat yoga, et cetera, et cetera. So as I’m sure you can understand, they have very different ideas of what to do with the hotel.

But for everyone, it’s an important part of their legacy. And so it’s really an emotional decision that has to be made. So I won’t give away the ending.

Don’t give away the ending because I was actually surprised by the ending! But both in this book and in “The Floating Feldmans,” it’s really a tale of several generations getting together and what ensues right in these little microcosms. “The Floating Feldmans” on a cruise. And you are so good at writing the different voices of the different generations. Talk to me about how you capture the voice of an 80-year-old versus how you capture the voice of a 20-something-year-old.

First of all, thank you for saying that. I definitely work hard at it. If I had to say why I am good at that, it’s probably that I just have a really good ear when I’m out in the world. First of all, I live in New York City. So living in New York City, just going down the block, you are just constantly surrounded by people of all different ages, genders, and backgrounds. I could imagine if I had a more rural existence and I worked from home in a quiet town and went for a walk and maybe saw one person in an hour, it might be a very different experience. Whereas if I go to buy milk in Manhattan, I’m just surrounded by voices. And so I felt really lucky because I have exposure to a wide range of voices just when I walk down my block. And I think that because I am just a curious person and I’m always listening, I am able to absorb the intonation, the verbiage, the mannerism. I look around and I listen. And that I think it helps me channel people that are in a different stage of life than I’m in.

Novelist Elyssa Friedland (Brian Marcus)

And so I just feel really grateful. I credit New York City with my ability to channel these voices that are very different than my own because otherwise, I don’t know where else I could say that I get it from because yes, do I know older people? Sure. I have parents, I have in-laws. Do I know people in their twenties? I do teach at the college level, but the truth is, I’m in the classroom with them. I’m doing most of the talking for two hours, and I leave. So I don’t think it comes from that. I think it really comes from just living in a bustling place and having a good ear.

As you mentioned, you do teach. So is this something that you would give as a tip to your students? 

I mean, not everyone can have the luxury of getting to live in New York City, and not everybody wants to. And for some people, from a writing perspective, that would be a terrible place to live because it’s so full of distraction. And there’s the Ralph Waldo Emerson version of writing, which is you got to go and tuck yourself in a cabin and have quiet. And so there are certainly many people who wouldn’t get a stitch of work done if they lived in such a bustling place and would like to be off the grid. So I don’t know that I would necessarily give that advice, but I would say maybe just see what you’re good at. And if you feel like it’s a really big stretch for you and it’s not coming across as convincing to write like an 82-year-old man, don’t write an 82-year-old man. Write the person that you feel comfortable writing, that you feel comfortable channeling. And maybe that’s someone that’s very similar to you. Maybe that’s someone that you knew once upon a time. Very closely in life or you have some experience with.

But you can tell. I think. If it’s a massive struggle to channel someone else’s voice. If it’s very integral to the story. I would just make it my business to at least find someone. One or two people who can an authenticity read. If you’re writing an 82-year-old man, find an 82-year-old man and have them read it and correct it. I mean, when I was first starting out, even just writing a male voice, my husband would read my work and he would say, “No man would say that.” He can’t speak for all men, but he can maybe speak for a majority of men or at least tell me that something didn’t ring true to him personally. And then it was up to me to decide what to do with that. But I don’t think there’s any reason why someone shouldn’t reach out and have someone read the work.

For this book, “The Most Likely Club,” my publisher hired people to read the book, to read the characters for an authenticity read, because there’s an Asian character, there is a bisexual character, there’s an Indian character. I am none of those things. And so they have these authenticity reads done, and I’m so grateful for that someone who says, “That’s really not the way it works in an Indian family,” or, “That’s not the way I would phrase it.”

And I really get my publisher a lot of credit because they said to me, “You don’t have to take any of this. This is for you to absorb and decide what you want to do.” If there was something very offensive, they would want me to do something about it. But it was up to me, and I took basically almost everything because I just want to sound as authentic as humanly possible.

It’s interesting that you talk about wanting to sound authentic in these niche identities of the Indian or the bisexual, et cetera, et cetera, because at the same time, while they do to me at least sound authentic, definitely your Jewish voice sounds authentic. But it’s always very universal stories that you’re writing, too.

Well, I think that’s really true because we’re all still people and we all still feel the same things. Of course you want to be factually correct: The only Indian food you know is the kind served in a restaurant, and that’s never something that is served in an Indian home? That’s not great.

Illustrative image: A teenage girl suffering from depression. (Ridofranz vis iStock by Getty Images)

But does an Indian 16-year-old girl feel self-conscious in high school? Yeah. So do the Asian girl and the black girl and the white girl and the Jewish girl. Feeling self-conscious when you’re 16 in high school is about as universal as it gets. Being middle-aged and thinking, “Oh, my God, how did I end up here? And is this what I want out of life again?” It’s a privilege to be able to take the time to even think about that. And I do want to acknowledge that not everyone has the luxury of making the changes they want to make.

But I would say if given the time and the space to think about it — these women are 43. If you ask any 43-year-old, “Take an hour of quiet and think about where you are in your life, is there anything you want to change? I’m pretty sure they’d be able to come up with a couple of things. No matter what they look like or what their background is.

Who has an hour, though, right? Let’s talk about how Judaism plays a role in your writing. None of the characters are especially observant or religious Jews, but they are so steeped in the culture. Even in the least Jewy books that we identified, there’s such striking cultural Judaism. So how is Judaism playing a role in your writing?

I think that it’s because it just plays such a big role in my own life that it filters over onto the page. I am not observant, but I’m just very culturally Jewish, as comes across in my books. I went to a Jewish day school. I go to synagogue on the major holidays. We celebrate Shabbat in our home, even if we’re not observing it in a religious way. But we like candles, we eat challah, we have a Shabbat dinner. And this is the world I know. It’s also, like, the humor I know.

My grandparents were immigrants. Even my parents were immigrants from Europe. They were born after the war, and they came here from Eastern Europe. And so that’s literally the humor that I grew up with, this sort of very Borscht Belt, eastern European Jewish humor, and it’s just who I am. I feel like I’ve just been steeped in Jewish culture from a very early age. And I grew up in a Jewish town. I went to Jewish camp. I could go on and on and on. So I feel like my Judaism is just a really big part of who I am. And so then it ends up becoming a natural part of my writing.

This June 4, 2020 file photo shows a row of cabins at a summer camp in Fayette, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Even when I don’t set out to write the Jewish book, I end up incorporating some of it because I think I just like it and I feel comfortable. It’s the opposite of needing the authenticity reads. Here is where I’m in my milieu, I know what I’m talking about. And that feels good because writing is really hard. And then when I can write about something that I feel like I know, first of all, I feel like I can push boundaries more because I feel more comfortable and I could just be more creative and find even more humor because I’m not first trying to learn about it and then write about it. I already know it. So it’s a comfortable space for me to be in as a writer, so I find myself returning to it.

Have you ever had any kind of antisemitic blowback because of this?

Zero. Absolutely zero. And I love saying that. It’s honest to God truth. And I’ve talked about this in previous interviews, but when “Last Summer at the Golden Hotel” came out, in May 2021, it happened to be the same month that there was a lot of media coverage about the rise in antisemitism, and the statistics were staggering about the antisemitic attacks that were happening across the globe. Up some crazy percentage, like up 100%, something really, really horrifying.

And my book came out and it was received with the warmest embrace by so many non-Jewish readers. Most of my readers aren’t Jewish. And I could just tell you, go on my Instagram, look at the comments, and it was like 1000 comments of, “I didn’t know anything about Jewish culture. This is the first book I’ve read where I’ve learned a lot about Jewish identity and Jewish culture. And I’m fascinated.”

It was one positive thing after another after another after another, and it was a great reminder of,, yes, there are bad people doing crazy things, but most people don’t hate Jews, and most people are very excited to read and learn about Jewish culture in the way that I love.

And the book sold well enough and was distributed widely enough that I can honestly say that it means something that I never came across a single antisemitic reaction. That’s really heartening.

I wonder about this next novel’s reception because it is basically about the inner lives of women of a certain age, my age essentially, and there’s not a lot of empathy for that in American society. There’s, of course, the Karen Meme. There’s all sorts of things of that nature where we women can’t have it all, women want to have it all, but suck it up and move on. Are you worried at all about this kind of reception?

Yeah, I would say I am a bit worried about that. That people just are sick of what they would call whining. Enough. But I wasn’t so worried that I wasn’t going to write it because I feel like I’m living it and I lead a very privileged life, and yet I still feel like I can’t take it. Like I’m losing it as a working mom, and I’m trying and I’m just coming apart at the seams.

An illustrative image of a mother working from home (LightFieldStudios; iStock by Getty Images)

And if I feel it, I can only imagine people who don’t have as much privilege and the luxuries that I have in my life. And so I know that I write from a place of privilege, I’m aware how much worse it is for people who don’t have the resources to have a babysitter and not have to worry about every doctor bill that comes in.

I have mostly female readers. And so it will be interesting. I think that people’s responses are going to be very personal. It’s going to strike a chord either very positively or negatively. People are going to have very strong reactions to the book, and I have to be prepared for that.

All right, I’m reminding our listeners that we’re about a week and a bit ahead of the publication of this newest book. So by the time they hear it, everything will be fine. It will be published. The world will embrace it, I feel sure, having read it just recently. And really such a pleasure reading your work — as coincidentally as it has been. And I will, of course, follow you more intentionally from here on out. So really such a pleasure speaking with you.

Thank you. And thank you so much for having me. It was very fun to discuss my books with you.

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